Much has been said, and rightly so, about what a heartbreaking time this period has been for so many kids around the world. “The Lost Year,” we called it in a TIME cover story about how COVID-19 affected a generation of students. This year’s TIME Kid of the Year, 11-year-old Orion Jean from Mansfield, Texas, has turned that script on its head—finding, and sharing, positivity in hardship: “You have to find something that breaks your heart for you to really get out there and make a difference,” the sixth-grader tells TIME contributing editor Angelina Jolie in an interview.
Choosing the Person of the Year, something we’ve done here at TIME for nearly a century, is always a daunting and heady endeavor. Choosing the Kid of the Year, now in its second year, is sheer inspiration. And Orion personifies it. When he was just 9 years old, he won a student kindness contest and donated his $500 prize to a local children’s hospital. Since then, he’s collected and donated hundreds of thousands of books, meals, and toys to those in need. Orion not only launches big efforts to fix problems he sees in everyday life, like food insecurity and lack of access to education. He also inspires others to join him, bringing local communities and governments together to help the neediest among us.
Kid of the Year begins with a nationwide search—this year saw thousands of submissions—in which parents, teachers, and friends can nominate a kid age 8 to 16 who is helping to make the world a better place. In partnership with Nickelodeon, which broadcasts the result as part of a television special, we also look across social media and school districts, at actions big and small by kids from around the country.
Panelists including representatives from the Special Olympics and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA form an advisory committee to help judge the candidates on the positive impact they’ve had this past year and on the signs that they’ll continue to lead in the future. A committee of kids—including Nickelodeon stars Alaya High, better known as That Girl Lay Lay; Dylan Gilmer of Tyler Perry’s Young Dylan; and Wolfgang Schaeffer from the Loud House—weighs in as well. We then work with host Trevor Noah to narrow down the finalists and select the ultimate Kid of the Year.
This year’s finalists include Orion as well as environmental activist Cash Daniels, 12, from Chattanooga, Tenn.; Mina Fedor, 13, from Oakland, Calif., who organized a rally to raise awareness about anti-Asian hate during the pandemic; DJ and antibullying advocate Samirah Horton, 13, from Brooklyn; and inventor Lino Marrero, 15, from Frisco, Texas. Each of them will be designated a TIME for Kids Kid Reporter, with opportunities through the year to contribute to TIME, and will receive a cash award from ViacomCBS, Nickelodeon’s owner.
“We looked for the attributes we want to see more of in the world—determination, passion, kindness, bravery, and innovation,” says TIME for Kids editor in chief Andrea Delbanco. In addition to Andrea, the TIME team supporting the project included senior editor Emma Barker, who edited the stories in the package, and Mike Beck, Maria Perez-Brown, Rebecca Gitlitz, Ian Orefice, and Jeff Smith, who produced the one-hour TV special highlighting the finalists.
The special was simulcast across Nickelodeon, TeenNick, and Nicktoons on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. (ET/PT). Beginning Thursday, Feb. 10, the special will also be available to watch on Nick.com, Nick App, and Nick on Demand.
“Kindness is a choice, and while we can’t force others to be kind, we can be kind ourselves and hope to inspire other people,” Orion tells Angelina Jolie. “I want others to know that they can start today.”
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